After a difficult G20 summit in Hamburg last week, dominated by discord and geopolitical divisions, EU leaders will turn their attention to the Balkans for a summit Wednesday in Trieste, Italy. It will be the fourth such meeting with regional leaders since 2014, aimed at improving cooperation across southeastern Europe and boosting the Western Balkans’ chances of joining the European Union.
The “Berlin process” started in summer 2014 following the war in Ukraine and rising geopolitical tensions. Back then, Chancellor Angela Merkel said she wanted to see “real progress” in reforming the Balkans and preparing it for EU membership. Three years on, the results are meager, but at least the EU’s attention to the region has grown. The flipside of that attention: There is no longer any doubt about the deep structural difficulties still facing the region.
The post-Yugoslav area is seen as a critical test case for the EU’s capacity to be a driving force in transforming former conflict zones on its own continent. Germany and the EU have an interest in stabilizing a region where the most deadly conflict in Europe after the Second World War took place. The aim is to re-establish order and ensure a lasting peace by integrating the countries into the bloc. This test has been ongoing for almost three decades, since the beginning of the collapse of former Yugoslavia. The jury is still out on whether it will succeed.
The list of open questions in the Western Balkans is long and painful.
To date, EU enlargement policy in the Western Balkans has been a story of too few successes. Promises to deliver the instruments and funding for a speedy convergence with the EU – and eventual membership – remain more elusive than ever. These shortcomings must be admitted, even if Brussels points to the opening of new negotiating chapters with Montenegro and Serbia, or a “Stabilization and Association Agreement” with Kosovo. Most people in the Balkans suspect that Brussels only shows an interest when regional crises threaten to engulf the European Union itself – as a corridor for migration, a source of organized crime, a staging post for Islamist-inspired terrorism, or as a sideshow in the West’s conflict with Moscow.
Germany has long been among the most active and influential external actors in the region. For instance, Slovenia and Croatia received decisive support from Germany for their drive to independent statehood and their eventually successful bid to enter the EU. In a similar vein, other countries in the region hope that, with Germany’s support, they can foster their own economic development and move faster toward EU membership. Germany and Italy are the most important political, economic and financial partners for most countries of the region. About a quarter of citizens of these southeast European countries live abroad, most of them in Germany and Italy.
The Berlin process was meant to help unblock talks with the EU, in part by resolving some of the outstanding bilateral and internal issues facing the Balkans. It is paramount for the EU to avoid importing new frictions from its border regions, not least against the background of reemerging ethnic and territorial tensions within the EU itself, such as in Northern Ireland, or even between Austria and Italy on the Tyrolian border in recent weeks. With consternation, the German government noted a new row erupting last month between Slovenia and Croatia, after an international arbitration panel ruled in favor of Slovenia in a sea-border dispute between these two new EU countries.
The Western Balkan countries need a boost. This requires a fundamental rethinking of the European Union’s enlargement policy.
The list of open questions in the Western Balkans is long and painful: Kosovo and Serbia are far from normalizing relations; Bosnia-Herzegovina is being held back by politicians who have no common vision for the country still scarred by the 1990s war. Albania, Macedonia and Montenegro, which is closest to winning EU membership, remain riddled by deeply-rooted political antagonisms. Across the region, societies have continued moving apart instead of coming closer through having a shared EU-perspective.
Hence, Germany and others are pushing for more regional cooperation, trust-building and reconciliation in the Balkans. Together with France, Germany supported the establishment of a Regional Youth Cooperation Office, which opened an office in Tirana, Albania, this spring. The first youth encounters and school exchanges are expected this fall. This is good news, but far from enough.
Better news will come if people’s lives become better thanks to EU integration. Yet, if the countries of the Western Balkans are to have any prospect of overcoming almost three decades of economic stagnation and crisis, they will need to double their current annual growth rates. A recent calculation by the World Bank showed that the Western Balkans will need to grow at annual rates of at least 6 percent if they are to match the EU average by the end of the 2030s. Without convergence with the EU, the growing gap could expose the region to the temptations of populism, nationalism and other anti-European currents. The Western Balkan countries need a boost to start catching up with the EU.
This requires a fundamental rethinking of the European Union’s enlargement policy. While a number of programs and initiatives have been launched since the Berlin process started in 2014, their effects have yet to be forcefully felt. German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel on May 31 sketched out what he called a “Berlin process plus” agenda. German cooperation and development tools should be better directed to the needs of the region, including creating special funds for start-up business, vocational training and IT-infrastructure development.
Trieste is the time to discuss these ideas and start an EU-realignment towards south-eastern Europe. Or else, others might fill the void. The EU’s commitment will be measured against that of China’s “Belt and Road” initiative, which promises some €10 billion ($11 billion) in investments for 16 countries in central, eastern and southern Europe.
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